Without the sweat-inducing comfort of my beloved Jitlada (and with the venerable Pok Pok inconveniently located far from my Manhattan abode), I’ve felt a little lost when it comes to Thai food. To be fair, I’ve only just started to explore the city’s offerings to the same degree in my limited time here, with nowhere near the same commitment as I have its ramen joints. And I haven’t yet ventured to more distant neighborhoods (i.e. Queens), so this is definitely a major caveat to my perspective on the Thai scene here.
Eric Asimov wrote (way back in 2001) about a discovery of his not making his “Southern Californian friends any less smug,” and I still largely feel that gap in experience, as a combination of flavor, strength of cooking, consistency, hospitality, and value. In New York, the value aspect of it is immediately greatly diminished, so I’m relying necessarily more on the other fronts. From many of the critics’ write-ups and pronouncements on authenticity, the main detraction is the prevalence of sugar (combined with the overly tame spice factor) in Americanized Thai.
I’d heard a lot about Uncle Boons, particularly from my friend Kelly. The restaurant’s two chefs and co-owners, Matt Danzer and Ann Redding, are well-pedigreed (formerly of Per Se), and there’s some lineage to Thailand through Chef Redding’s childhood and extended family (hence the name, after a real uncle). When I got there, my friend was waiting and we sat at the bar next to an old guy dining alone who’d ordered a plate of muu tod (crispy pork belly with shrimp paste nam prik and fish sauce caramel dipping sauces). We made a mental note to order that. Beside the bar is also a window to the grill, which is a tantalizing view when you’re hungry and waiting for your table.
After we sat down, we got this salad of banana blossoms, shredded rotisserie chicken, cashew, crispy shallots, and roasted chili dressing (yum khai hua pli). It was surprisingly spicy, with an interesting dry, chewy crunch from the banana blossoms (almost like fresh lemongrass) and plenty of flavor in the chicken.
The aforementioned crispy pork belly, which was as delicious as we’d suspected.Then a couple of things from the grill: a Issan pork & rice sour sausage, and spicy rotisserie cabbage with roasted chili nam prik, crispy dried shrimp and shallots. In theory I should’ve liked these, but they weren’t that impressive. The cabbage is grilled to the point of mushiness, and while the shallots and shrimp counterbalance that, it only works to a point.The beef rib massaman curry (massaman neuh) was tasty, with a nice chunk of boneless beef rib topped with crushed peanuts. The focus here was on the beef, with the curry almost a sauce rather than, well, curry. Not all bad, because the beef was tender and went nicely with the crunch of peanuts and red onions, and the curry had an undertone of green peppercorns that added some kick.My friend Jessica and I shared the lobster, which came with a side of dipping sauce (chu chee curry, a sweeter, less spiced curry usually reserved for seafood) and jasmine rice with coconut, ginger, and lemongrass.The dish was good, and I loved the rice especially – simple ingredients, but a great mix of flavors and textures. I’m not good about appreciating lobster – I like it, but am not enamored with a simply steamed version. Call me a cretin. Butter poach it, and I will be there. Steam, and I’m reminded of how lobster used to be a less glamorous food. Eh, but I’m just being picky, perhaps. And besides, I’ve rarely seen lobster on real Thai menus, so while I wasn’t a huge fan of Uncle Boon’s version, I wasn’t really judging its proficiency at Thai cooking through the lens of a steamed lobster.
To close, we had this mound of coconut ice cream, an airy version with whipped cream, showered with toasted coconut bits.
All in all, I think there were some great flavors, whether the massaman curry or the chu chee dipping sauce, and the nam prik that came with the pork belly, as well as the natural elements of the chicken salad. There was a welcome departure from sugar-laden noodles and curries that more serious food critics have bemoaned, and there remains much of the grill portion of the menu that we didn’t explore. That said, even with a shared-plates approach, dinner at Uncle Boons is not cheap, so most likely it won’t reach the same level of overall amazing to which my Southern Californian friends are accustomed. But I’m hoping it comes close.